A first visit with the winners of the PM/Slant-Fin Business Makeover Contest, Timothy Flynn and Gene Cataldo, Winters Co., Belmont, Mass.

Tim Flynn was thrilled that he and Gene Cataldo, Winter Co., Belmont, Mass., had won the contest. But he did have one reservation.

“What’s that?,” I asked.

“We’re not happy about the prospect of working with someone we figure is a Yankee fan,” Tim said.

“Well, working with a couple of Red Sox fans brings to mind the definition of mixed emotions.”

“What is the definition of mixed emotions?”

“Ah, mixed emotions is what you feel while watching your mother-in-law drive off the cliff in your new car.”

“All kidding aside,” Gene said. “We know we’re going to try and work hard to implement the changes you recommend because we know it’s in our own best interest. But how do you plan to get us to actually deliver on the promise?”

“Glad you asked. You already gave me the answer. When I arrive, I plan to take a photo of the two of you wearing Yankee caps. And if you don’t get done what we’ve agreed to, I plan to run the photo in PM and the local paper and let you deal with the fallout!”

This is how our first conversation went and it’s been even more fun since then.

Tim and Gene asked me to allow them to share their story with you rather than keeping it anonymous as was their right. They are passionate about helping you and they feel these two articles -- this one a “before,” followed later this year with an “after” -- can be inspirational for other companies like theirs to do better.

That’s why I asked them to speak to you directly in this article and in the follow-up story, which will detail what we did and what the results were.

Here’s what Gene and Tim wanted you to know about the previsit and the first two-day visit:

“We entered our company into the contest to get over the nagging issues and questions that the company continuously has. As a first-generation plumbing repair business, our company has no mentor or person who has handled our common problems within our circle.

“Price objections, marketing, communication and accounting have all had continuing questions, but never answers. Why do we charge so much? How much should we spend on marketing? Is six-figure accounts receivable normal? Why don’t the service techs perform the same job the same way?

“Our company cannot speak for the industry, but I am sure there are common concerns that go unanswered day after day, because no one takes the time to get the tough questions answered.

“After we learned about winning the business makeover, Al requested all written information that we had currently in place. He requested employee manuals, simple contracts and every memo from the past six months that we could find.

“We found that request a bit overwhelming, but with Al’s help and our information we would strive to make the company a standout one. Al received every page of information and replied back via e-mail more than 30 separate times. He was professional and serious about his work with us.

“This was no small task. After he reviewed our documents, a date was set and two full days of our time was dedicated to his visit.

“On the first day, Al interviewed Gene and I for eight hours! I know it seems like a long time, but that was the fastest eight hours of our lives. The level of conversation was inspiring. We asked questions and Al had solid practical answers. He asked questions of Gene and I and we often stumbled for answers. In a question-and-answer session with Al, you quickly learn what you think you know and what you should know! To be in the same room with Al Levi was a re-energizing experience.

“Al’s interview was focused and goal-oriented. We left the interview with the overwhelming feeling: What do we do first? With attitude and determination, Gene stayed up all night thinking about what to do next.

“On the second day, Al spent time with four of our service techs, the service manager and the office manager. All of the interviews were done privately and Gene and I were not included in on the conversations.

“While we weren’t included in on the conversations, the discussions have been referred to several times since then by the staff. The following day, our company had our weekly meeting.

“The bottom line is that although we do perform well for our clients, we could perform a lot better for our employees. As a result, the business would perform a lot better.

“As humans, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. As business owners, we will make more time to work on the business of continuous improvement. We must constantly review our procedures and improve every aspect of what we do.

“Gene and I have tremendous work to do. We are energized and ready to take on the task at hand. As we are quickly learning, it is not a choice. We are grateful to have won this award and for all of Al Levi’s efforts on our behalf. The Yankees could have done a lot worse. (Let’s hope they do!)”

I can share a sample of the things we talked about and some of the changes already underway:

  • The bank statement is going to be sent to Tim’s home rather than to the office. This is to allow him an opportunity to review all the checks written to verify there are no duplications or vendors that don’t look familiar. The person writing the checks must not be the first or only one who reviews them.

  • The personnel files were unsecured and in too accessible a location. The files are being physically moved and locked. Access will be limited to Tim and Gene. This information is too important and too sensitive to handle any other way.

  • There was disappointment in their current marketing program and the marketing company. This lead to an in-depth conversation about the right way to delegate a project. A clear goal is essential for any project. A budget is required. Objective measurements need to be agreed upon and a time-frame to confirm the results. The company who spearheads a big project like marketing needs to demonstrate they can deliver by doing small projects first. Then they can be entrusted with larger portions of the whole project.

  • Communications in any company is a big challenge. In a growing company, the challenge for owners and managers is to get past relying on one-way communication based upon issuing memos and talking to staff. These are ineffective if there is no written documentation that is signed off on and buy-in has been achieved.

  • Price objections become a greater problem when people are trying to communicate with a customer, and sell without a documented selling system. And there must be sales training with objective sales statistics to track. Coaching helps achieve a company sales goal. Teach the skills needed to minimize price objections. As technicians, we wouldn’t make a technical diagnostic and repair without following a system.

  • We talked about a two-pronged approach to receivables. One is to change the way we do business today so that we ask “How will you be paying today?” Lowering or eliminating future receivables is so much easier to do when you’re able to quote a price up front before the work begins.

    But controlling receivables begins with a script that’s followed by each and every customer service representative, and then it’s reinforced by the tech who expects to get paid at the time of service. Accept that some customers may be upset by the change of payment policy but a far greater majority will be accepting.

    The second part is to collect the money outstanding as quickly as possible. This is accomplished by appealing to the customers for their help. Offering a discount on money owed will help get the money in faster. Many customers will respond to a sincere argument about why the money is needed and will respond positively to the reward of a discount. It’s a win-win.

  • What to do first? It’s overwhelming as the projects pile up while we are busy putting out the daily fires. To get a handle on the projects, it was agreed that a complete list of all the company’s project needs to be created. A priority of 1 to 5 will be assigned to each with 1 being most urgent. A reason why it’s important, who will do it, what it’ll cost and a projected completion date is also required. This is how to work on the most important things, determine what to outsource and maximize how we spend our time and our money.

Coming Soon

I’ll be putting together a 25- to 30-page Needs Assessment that summarizes our two days of meetings and the resources I’ve been looking at. What I promised Tim and Gene is that they’ll read: 1) What they do well -- keep doing it and do more of it; 2) What they should stop doing and why; and 3) What they should consider doing in the future and why.

They will also learn: 1) What they can do on their own; 2) What I can help them with; 3) What they need that I don’t do but someone I recommend does.

It’s game time!